The Creative Crockpot of Christopher Olson

Why Shorten Sentences Automatically?

When I read stories like this, it really makes me wonder what point there is in giving out a lengthy sentence.

If you don’t feel like reading the article, a woman was sentenced to five years in jail for taking a strangers baby and smashing it into a sidewalk. The judge, then gave the woman double credit for the time she had already served, (two years), so now she’ll only have an additional year to serve.

So basically she got a three year sentence. I don’t understand the point of telling her she’s getting five years, but with the caveat that it’s really only three years.

By giving the “harsh penalty” of five years, you might be sending a message that random assault is not tolerated. But by then giving extra credit for time already served, you’re undermining that message. Why not just eliminate the credit, and hand her a three year sentence? It’s not like people see this and think, “geez, she got five years for assault.” They think, “she’s only serving three years.”

If she had been simply sentenced to three years in jail, most people would think that was appropriate, three years in jail on its own seems like a long time. But comparing it to what she could have got, we instantly think, well, now it’s only three years, that’s not that long, she should have to serve all five years in prison.

We look at the end result, what’s the cost to the assailant. It’s human nature, we look at the actual cost. And giving us an additional reference point, this case five years, makes the cost seem less.

And the cost, and the message, is that if you get drunk, grab a strangers sleeping baby out of a crib, and smash its head against the pavement, you’re getting three years in jail. Does that seem right? I don’t know. The judge seemed to think five years was appropriate.

But if that’s the message the judge wants to send, fine, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re telling people it’s five, you’re saying it’s three. And you shouldn’t be making the public mad by making it sound like she’s getting a smaller sentence than she deserves. It’s one or the other, it’s not both.

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